When I arrived in Jordan, I was expecting culture shock. I’ve been abroad before, I know the drill. You get there and things aren’t what they seem and they do not abide by your expectations. Easy, right? Well, culture shock is different in each culture and region of the world and Jordan has been taking quite a bit of adjusting. My physical body does not agree with the heat or the food, and my mind has been struggling to comprehend how an alphabet using lovely swirls can represent phonemes, but otherwise, my heart and my mind are really enjoying the sunshine and engaging with an entirely new culture and language. When I have the opportunity to talk with a local about their culture in English, I try my best to ask as many questions as I can that will help me better understand the country that is hosting my exploration this month.
The first thing that I noticed upon arriving in Jordan was the interaction between Islam and the culture. While Jordan is not a theocracy, the government and the culture are intertwined with the Islamic religion and all of the tenants of belief for the Islamic faith. One of the easiest ways to see, or rather hear, this is in the call to prayer 5 times a day. It took me by surprise the first time I heard the loudspeakers of the mosque at 4am, but now I have gotten used to the singsong prayers and reading of the Qur’an, and I notice the strange quiet when I’m staying somewhere that I cannot hear the mosques during the day. Even the Jordanian flag is a testament to the link between the government and religion- the 4 colors on the flag, red, white, black, and green, all represent periods in the timeline of Islamic history, and the 7 pointed star references the first verse of the Qur’an.
Our first two weeks in Jordan also took place during Ramadan, a time where all practicing Muslims should be fasting from food and drink during the time when the sun is in the sky. This involves alternating business hours to accommodate for the lack of energy in both the store owners and the customers. We were informed that the government even set certain regulations about what kinds of stores can be open during Ramadan. For example, Restaurants are not supposed to be open during the days of Ramadan out of respect and to stop the temptation of those who are fasting. The exception to this rule is the restaurants who cater to tourists, but there are even more regulations which mandate that the restaurant must appear closed and have curtains drawn so that bystanders cannot pass by and see a room full of people eating. However, the biggest lesson I learned about Ramadan and Jordanian culture is that it takes a large amount of dedication to one’s faith to be able to spend 6 hours outside in the hot sun doing archaeological excavations without having any food or water.
Another way that religion interacts with the culture in Jordan is through language. In Arabic, many of the greetings and social niceties include the word “allah” and wish the peace and presence of God on the recipient of the conversation. It is very traditional to say “salaam alleikum” or “the peace of Allah be with you” when you greet someone, and although it is possible to greet someone without using a religious term (“marhaba”), most people are unaccustomed to it and give me weird looks if I use that rather than salaam alleikum. I find it fascinating from a linguistic perspective that these terms are in constant use within the language and I wonder if there will be a change any time in the future of Arabic that see a diminishing or altering of these terms like what happened in English. There was a point in time when English speakers used the term “God be with ye” to bid someone farewell which is now shortened to the simple “good bye,” and it also used to be customary to say “God bless you” following someone’s sneeze, which now is shortened to “bless you” if it is acknowledged at all. The contemporary Arabic terms for both of these both reference Allah, but I would be curious to see if in 150-200 years if there is enough of a change in the intertwining of the language and Islam which would change the prominence of some of these terms.
Along with the pattern of language is the seemingly unending friendliness of the Jordanian people. I’ve spent so much time in France that I forget that there are cultures that are naturally warm and welcoming. There have been so many occasions in Jordan where I meet someone and talk to them for a short while and before I know it, they are inviting me to share tea with them. This gentle generosity speaks louder than the language and culture barrier and shows me that there is so much to learn from other people and cultures. I would love to become more Arabic in the way that I open up my calendar and my kitchen to host people for a cup of a tea and a conversation regardless of their background. I have realized that I do not even need to be able to have a real conversation in order to show my appreciation and interest in Jordanian culture: my simple Arabic remarks of “I like tea,” and, “very good,” and, “what is this called in Arabic,” are usually enough to start a game of pointing to items and learning words or being taught the alphabet by my generous hosts.
My discoveries about the Jordanian culture have shown me that there is an incredible network of interlinking cultural elements that are woven into the cloth of this nation. There is the inescapable influence of Islam on the government and society, but this same influence impacts the language and the generosity of the people as a whole. The generosity and kindness of Jordanian culture makes me wonder what I can do to bring this warmth and generosity to my own home and how I can better reflect the light of Christianity through my attitude towards others. I also wonder if there is a way that the international Christian Church could do a better job outwardly expressing our faith and the love shown through the story of the Gospel.